Of all the Asian countries, Japan is probably the one that has been influenced the most by Western culture and in particular, America.
Baseball is the national sport, Godzilla is more popular than Gojira and many people celebrate Christmas at KFC.
Hip-Hop culture, however, has had a hard time finding its place in the Land of the Rising Sun and has only obtained some commercial success in recent years.
The first element of Hip-Hop to develop in Japan was break-dancing: ever since the early ‘80s young b-boys would perform in Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park inspired by movies like Wild Style and Breakin’, finding a way to express themselves creatively in a society that didn’t encourage self-expression enough.
Soon the dance-offs in Tokyo were being “directed” by DJs and their vinyl scratching. MCs, however, had a hard time trying to rhyme words with a flow. Japanese is in fact made of sentences ending in auxiliary verbs with no stress accents. Basically every rapper’s worst nightmare.
Technical problems aside, there were also several controversies related to Japan’s embrace of Hip-Hop culture. Many rappers were perceived as ridiculous copycats of the stars across the ocean and were considered as fools who were wasting their time trying to be something they weren’t supposed to be.
Pioneers like Anarchy styled their hair in afros or dreadlocks and youths would heavily tan in order to get a darker skin complexion. While it can undoubtedly be seen as a form of cultural appropriation, for Hip-Hop heads it was just a faithful way to rebel against the conformity and homogeneity of Japanese society while imitating American rappers.
And the respect was mutual. Pharrell Williams and Lil Wayne wore Bathing Ape clothes in their videos, Kanye West collaborated with Takashi Murakami for the artistic outlook of his Graduation album and producer Nujabes (R.i.p) was building up his legendary reputation in the American underground scene.
The new millennium brought prosperity to Hip-Hop and so it did in Japan. From Pop-Rap to Trap and Hardcore, many artists have embraced this genre as a vehicle for their emotions and their troubles.
Yuki Chiba, better known by his stage name KOHH, was raised by his grandparents in Tokyo’s slums, surrounded by drugs and violence. He was only 3 years old when his father committed suicide and his mother started abusing methamphetamine.
Unlike some of his friends who ended up living a life of crime, KOHH put all of his efforts into music and started releasing mixtapes at the age of 18. His career took an international leap when he hopped on Korean rapper, Keith Ape trap-banger It G Ma. Since then, he has collaborated with the likes of Frank Ocean and Mariah Carey.
Much like J Dilla is the angel of American underground Hip-Hop, Nujabes is for Japan.
The legendary Tokyo based DJ and composer left a forever-lasting mark on music with his jazz-infused, lo-fi take on beats production. He spoke to a whole generation of hip-hop fans looking to escape from the stress and anxiety of living a monotonous life.
He was deeply respected in the USA and had a solid career in Japan.
He gained international acclaim for his work as soundtrack producer of the critically acclaimed animated series “Samurai Champloo” by the famous director Shinichirō Watanabe.
Nujabes tragically died in a car accident at the age of 36.
Akiko Urasaki was born in Naha, on the island of Okinawa. She grew up around winds of protest against both the Japanese and the American government, which has around 10 military bases on the island.
She began rapping at the age of 14 and joining rap battles at 17, inspired by Tupac’s lyrics and the tumultuous social situation in which she resided. She was soon signed by a record label in Tokyo, but things weren’t going the way she planned. The music market wasn’t well receptive of songs about political issues forcing her to either sell out or quit. She decided to go back to University, this time in Atlanta, USA.
There she met and married a native New Yorker with whom she had her first child, Toyomi. Soon after she got her bachelor’s degree for entrepreneurship and marketing. Unfortunately, shortly after she graduated her husband was shot and killed, forcing her to return home with her daughter.
Ten years after her debut, she has released her album 8 and has established a production company called Cipher City. She was recently featured in the Red Bull documentary Asia Rising.
Check out our EXPLORE: Japan Spotify playlist here: